Carlton's list and its short-term AFL premiership prospects are at a critical point.
It's been five years since Mick Malthouse was unceremoniously dumped as senior coach and Brendon Bolton took over the reins as the club embarked upon its biggest list rebuild.
In that offseason, the Blues made some key moves, investing in young key position players at the draft as a way to shore up the side's spine for the following decade.
Jacob Weitering, Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow were added to the list, while in following years, an emphasis on drafting the Blues' next-generation midfielders emerged; Sam Petrevski-Seton and Zac Fisher arrived in 2016, Paddy Dow, Lochie O'Brien and Tom De Koning in 2017, and Sam Walsh and Liam Stocker in 2018. Of those, O'Brien, Dow and Stocker are yet to show more than glimpses, but they still, for now, have time on their side.
Everything was poised for an assault on mature talent in 2019, before cold feet, indecision or a stubborn reluctance to realise that established talent costs something meant the Blues, and outgoing list boss Stephen Silvagni, walked away without filling a list need with a player that desperately wanted to get across the line - Sydney small forward Tom Papley.
The Blues instead went to the draft and landed Brodie Kemp with what turned out to be pick 17, arguably a top-10 prospect had he not ruptured his ACL earlier in the year. The hype surrounding Kemp is high - he's a strong-bodied midfielder who wins his own ball, but his impact in games isn't going to be known for some time.
And that's a major issue Carlton faces this coming offseason. The players they drafted and brought in at the beginning of the club's rebuild are, for all intents and purposes, now hitting their prime. Weitering, McKay and Curnow will all be 23 come Round 1, 2021. Patrick Cripps will be 26 and Sam Docherty 27.
The time to add A-grade quality talent to the ranks is now, and newly-minted head of list management Nick Austin is going to have to earn his pay packet, as Carlton's efforts at the trade and free agency table last year were, well, underwhelming.
Jack Newnes as a delisted free agent has been handy, as has Marc Pittonet in the ruck, but they're not going to strike fear into the hearts of opposition fans (though Freo fans may beg to differ!).
Even before that, Carlton was happy to gamble, taking on -- at the time -- speculative youngsters such as Matt Kennedy, Caleb Marchbank and Will Setterfield at apparent 'bargain' prices. Kennedy can't break into the side consistently, Setterfield is growing but there are concerns about his ball use and Marchbank has been riddled with injuries.
So the time to invest in established stars is upon the Blues. Adelaide's Brad Crouch, for instance, would be 27 by the time Round 1, 2021 comes around. Power midfielder Ollie Wines would be 26, as would Essendon's Adam Saad. Crouch is a free agent, with Wines to enter free agency at the end of 2022. Saad is out of contract.
From reports, Giant Zac Williams will join the Blues as a free agent on a five-year deal. This is promising, but it's not enough.
Speaking of the Giants, Jeremy Cameron has not signed on the dotted line. Any club that has the cap space and doesn't ask the question should hand in its license. Given Mitch McGovern's lack of output for the money he is on, and the worrisome talk that Charlie Curnow's injured knee may never fully heal, throwing a chunk of change at a Coleman medallist isn't as silly as it sounds.
It's the time for the Blues to make a big move. It's time to pay 'overs' for someone who can be a match-winner alongside Cripps, be it in the midfield, forward of centre or behind the ball. Continuing to go to the draft now would be madness, given Kade Simpson and Matthew Kreuzer have announced their retirements and Eddie Betts (33), Marc Murphy (33) and Ed Curnow (soon to be 31) are getting close.
The last thing Carlton fans want or deserve to see is the club's current core of Cripps, Docherty and Co. to grow old while they wait for all the other pieces to fall into place.
The list of names the Blues have whiffed on in recent times is troubling. They were linked heavily with Dylan Shiel a couple of years back and couldn't get him over the line, Stephen Coniglio was a tougher prospect but there was genuine interest before he re-signed with the Giants, Tom Rockliff and Papley most recently.
There are already troubling signs of a malaise at the Blues unless they're prepared to take a few risks in this offseason and beyond.
When coach David Teague took over what looked to be a hapless club halfway through last season, he reinvigorated the playing group that is clearly laden with talent to deliver six wins from the club's last 11 matches and a healthy percentage of 95.5.
This year, Teague has coached the side to a 7-10 season and a percentage of 94.3 - albeit in trying circumstances. On the raw win-loss table, it's admittedly a recession, but looking deeper, there is cause for worry given how the Blues have plateaued somewhat.
According to Champion Data, Carlton's disposal efficiency differential -- that is, theirs compared to their opponents -- is worst in the league at -4.3 percent, down from 16th last year.
Looking specifically at kicking efficiency, they're 17th in the league at -4.0 percent - down again from 16th last season. This is peculiar as Carlton is the No. 2 team in the league for kick-to-handball ratio at 1.8:1 (up from fourth last year).
The Blues have also fallen away in terms of goals per inside 50 percentage, down from a goal coming from 22.7 percent of inside 50s under Teague in 2019 (ranked 11th) to 19.4 percent in 2020 (ranked 15th).
What this shows is they don't have the right players using the football, especially while going inside 50. After all, Carlton ranked fifth for time in forward half differential at +3.52 minutes, fourth for forcing stoppages in their forward half and fourth for possession gains in their forward half.
An #AFLDraft special! The team is joined by @ChrisDoerreESPN— footytips (@footytips) December 7, 2020
and @championdata's Christian Joly to chat:
🦠 COVID curveballs
🧐 A top 20 phantom draft
📈 Risers and sliders
👀 Ranking the No. 1 picks since 2000
Stream the latest @ESPNAusNZ#AFL pod herehttps://t.co/XHlrbAAC7Y
This should be adding up to much more dominance on the scoreboard, but it's not. What doesn't help is that Carlton's performances in front of goal have been incredibly disappointing at times in 2020. Between Rounds 1-10, the Blues were kicking at 50.9 percent in front of goal, ranked third. From Rounds 11 onwards, that had stagnated to 18th at 36.3 percent.
That may have something to do with the fact they let go of long-time goalkicking mentor Saverio Rocca when the COVID-19 fallout hit soft caps - a bizarre decision given the game is reliant on kicking a winning score.
Teague's halftime spray to his playing group during Saturday's loss to Brisbane shows he realises he can't be left wanting; he's not Brendon Bolton who had the luxury of time to build a list. The foundations are there for Teague - some of those pieces have been at Princes Park since October, 2015.
Quite simply, he needs to get good ball users in the door and perhaps a piece up forward to assist McKay and Co. - and the draft isn't the way to do it, especially given it's so speculative due to half the talent list having been unable to play. Williams will be a good addition, but he's not quite the 'big fish' Carlton so desperately wants.
The last time the Blues gambled big and landed a so-called 'big fish' was the Chris Judd trade way back in 2007, and disregarding the 'who won and who lost' arguments, Judd did lead Carlton to two semifinal berths in 2011 and 2013 as well as elimination finals appearances in 2009 and 2010.
The Blues have just posted their highest ladder position (11th) since 2013. It's time to overpay for a big fish to join the ranks and help them take the next step